As I looked in the direction of the slide I saw we were headed for a telephone pole. In my mind I saw the pole snapping insignificantly like one of the wooden snow poles I had run over before.
December 17, 1979 brought snow to Lake Tahoe. It was a school day, the kind of school day where we would listen to the radio, or maybe call the bus garage to see if they would cancel school in favor of a snow day. This sort of thing is quite normal during the winter school months on the North shore.
Of course, as a teenager, there was nothing finer than having a day off from
school, like an unexpected gift we accepted without question.
Usually, such days were too stormy for good skiing, and the roads were bad in the mornings at least. But Placer County and the State of California always stepped up to the task, and they would soon have the main roads cleared enough to drive school buses. One of their mandates, it seemed to me, was to clear the main school bus routes first. This, they nearly always achieved, to their cursed credit and on this December 17, they had done their job.
I was a 17-year-old senior at North Tahoe High School. I had been driving myself to school for about a year by then, either in my parents cars or later, in my own car equipped with studded snow tires. Without a four-wheel drive I learned, any self-respecting local would run studded snow tires, like the ones on my car. To me, the use of tire chains was a sign of weakness and inexperience. For at Tahoe, you either drove in the snow, or you hitch hiked. I drove to school that morning. Driving in the snow was fun for most of my friends and I, it was easy to slide and spin the wheels for fun, and we got plenty of practice recovering from unplanned slips as well. The roads were in pretty good shape considering the rate of snowfall. I had no problems with the drive but remember thinking there sure was a lot of snow coming down.
When they didn’t call a snow day in the morning, students of North Tahoe High, and a great many other schools I suppose, would watch out the window or in between classes step outside, to see the snow pile up. Sometimes, what the Tahoe Truckee Unified school district would do on days such as these was let school out early. The idea was that the snow and road conditions were going to worsen and they wanted to get the buses on the road before it became unsafe.
Even though our morning gift hadn’t come, we would hope that at any minute the Vice Principal’s voice would come over the intercom announcing our reward of early departure. These half days were in some ways better than snow days, because we wouldn’t have to make them up at the end of the year, and we had the added benefit of being with our friends and knowing each others plans for the rest of the day. I would never know whether or not they let school out early that day.
In November of 1979, the band Pink Floyd, had released one of the most popular albums of the decade, The Wall. I was the first kid on my block, or even the whole school it seemed, to have this album on cassette. I had been listening and playing it for my friends for a few days, and asked a friend of mine if we could go “crank a couple songs up” at his house during lunch. Tim, whose father was a real estate developer or some such professional, was one of my many friends with wealthy parents. Friends with wealthy parents were as common at Tahoe as friends with pets in other places I had lived. Their condo was a lakefront with a very expensive stereo in the living room. Tim’s parents were hardly ever around; I supposed they were off making more money somewhere else, thus the nice house and stereo. Many of my ‘rich kid’ friends had absentee parents.
Tim also had a brand new Jeep CJ. This jeep had great tires and four wheel drive, the ultimate snow toy for young drivers. So the lunch bell rang and off we went across the school parking lot to the jeep. I was quite comfortable with the walk to the jeep in my new down jacket. Having a down jacket was like having four wheel drive or studded snow tires on one’s car, part of the Tahoe survival kit for locals. Some of the more local types were fond of patching their big down jackets with duct tape, my jacket had no duct tape as it was new.
The snow had intensified; in fact it had become a blizzard. The storm had reached that magic moment which Sierra storms sometimes do, when the plows could not keep up with the snowfall. During the day when this happens, the local traffic of moms on errands, and business people going to and fro, suffices to replace plowing by packing the snow hard on the surface streets. Where the plows remove snow from the roads, this packing process hardens and compacts the snow to near concrete hardness over the pavement.
Music from The Wall accompanied the windshield wipers all the way to Tim’s house over just such a surface. He lived only two miles or so from the High school, and while we slipped a few times, the jeep had no problems with the conditions once Tim adjusted his speed to coexist with the lethal surface. Once at the lakefront condo, we listened to Pink Floyd from Sansui speakers with oversized woofers as we ate sandwiches and drank sodas. The time had come to take the cassette back to the jeep and drive back to school.
Next door to the condo was Star Harbor, home of the North Lake Tahoe Coast Guard station and boat ramp with a large parking lot. With over two feet of fresh powder in this parking lot, few young jeep drivers can resist such a playground and Tim was no exception. Tim zipped into the parking lot and showed me his trick. This stunt consisted of gaining speed as quickly as possible, then cranking the wheel one way or the other while slamming on the parking brake. Known among us Tahonians as the “E-Brake” turn, Tim and I enjoyed the parking lot until the very last second we had to avoid being late back from lunch. Tim eased out of Star Harbor onto Lake Forest road back to the high school.
While we were lunching at the condo, another winter road condition had emerged. A plow had visited Lake Forest road. When a snowplow equipped with a normal straight blade encounters this rock hard, white packed snow condition, it doesn’t remove much snow. It simply peels the rough layer from the top of the packed surface like a razor blade removes paint from glass. This pealing action leaves a clean scraped surface resembling polished white marble. This type of road surface is so slippery; one can barely stand or walk on it. Adding to that perhaps a quarter inch of snow and we may as well have been driving on an ice rink. This was Lake Forest road.
I never asked, but I assume Tim saw what he thought was a good place for an E-Brake turn about a quarter mile down Lake Forest Road. I don’t think either of us expected what happened next though, on the deadly slick ice once the slide began, the jeep actually seemed to accelerate. The jeep slid completely out of control. It was a familiar feeling, to slide out of control in the snow; I had done this many times before, usually for fun, sometimes accidentally. We slid to the right, driver’s side first towards a driveway. The speed was probably around 35 MPH but we were not slowing at all.
As I looked in the direction of the slide I saw we were headed for a telephone pole. In my mind I saw the pole snapping insignificantly like one of the wooden snow poles I had run over before. I then envisioned us being stuck in the deep snow bank afterward, having to dig out. In my mind I thought, “great, we’re going to get stuck and have to dig out, then we’ll be late back from lunch break”. The jeep continued to slide, as time seemed to slow. As we slid, I continued to look at the pole, and it seemed we might miss it. What did happen was very different indeed. My last memory of this was perhaps a loud sound, more of a rustling disturbance really than a loud crash, accompanied by a brief flash of light, then dark.